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Sunday Study: “WHO IS HASHEM?”

From Temple Institute @
As God proved to Pharaoh, freedom of choice is a God-given gift. And what God gives, God can take away.

Following Moshe’s false start in attempting to extricate Israel from Egyptian servitude, a disappointed and frustrated Moshe returns to commiserate with G-d. Pharaoh said no way, he increased the hardships imposed upon the Hebrew slaves and the Israelites resented Moshe’s hare-brained attempt to achieve for them three days of offerings to HaShem in the desert, which only, in their words “made us stink in the eyes of Pharaoh.” (Exodus 5:21)

“O HaShem!” Moshe cries, “Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people.” (Exodus 5:22-23)

And G-d replies, in effect, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

G-d had, in fact, previously told Moshe that Pharaoh would initially refuse to loosen his grip on the Israelite slaves. Had not Pharaoh declared, “Who is HaShem that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know HaShem, neither will I let Israel out.” (Exodus 5:2)

Who is HaShem? Pharaoh is about to find out. This is the moment that G-d has been waiting for. Having made His name known to Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and the children of Israel, G-d is now going to make His name known among all the nations. And He is going to do this via Pharaoh, the most powerful potentate among the nations. After twenty-six generations of mankind, G-d has gotten to recognize the heart of man quite well. He would use Pharaoh’s own stubborn pride, his own megalomania and avarice, and his own unbreakable insistence that he, Pharaoh, and he alone, was in charge, to shatter Pharaoh and his kingdom into pieces.

Already by the first few plagues, Pharaoh’s position is starting to look shaky. For sure, his necromancers can reproduce the turning of the Nile waters to blood, but this is nothing more than a self-inflicted blow, further exacerbating the hardship of having no water to drink or to bathe in. Soon enough Pharaoh catches on, and begins to play a game of his own. Following each paralyzing plague, he agrees to release the Hebrews for three days in the desert, only to change his mind when Moshe requests of G-d to undo the plague. And then, growing ever more clever, Pharaoh begins to agree to let the Israelites go, only to attach conditions to their departure: the men can go, but not the women and children. The men and women can go but not the livestock. But G-d, who knows Pharaoh’s mind better than Pharaoh does, instructs Moshe to also up his demands following every plague. Pharaoh has walked into the perfect trap. Other than complete surrender, which is not an option for a man who imagines he is a god, Pharaoh has no way to go but down.

After striking Egypt with boils, the sixth plague, we read that “HaShem hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not hearken to them, as HaShem spoke to Moshe.” (Exodus 9:12) “Foul!” we cry. Up until now, it was Pharaoh who hardened his own heart. He was disastrously foolish to do so, but it was his choice, and isn’t free will the ability to choose for ourselves our G-d given right, whether we opt to choose good or whether we opt to choose evil? Is G-d changing the rules in mid-contest?

Our freedom to choose is a gift that G-d did, indeed, grant to man. He presented Adam, the first man, the freedom to choose to defy G-d’s will. To be sure, G-d warned him of the consequences of the wrong choice, but nevertheless he allowed Adam to choose for himself. Adam was formed by G-d. He recognized G-d. He knew G-d. And this was the source of his ability to choose for himself.

Pharaoh stated emphatically to Moshe that “I do not know HaShem.” And despite his attempt to bob and weave with G-d, at one moment denying G-d’s command and at the next agreeing, as it were, only to attach unmeetable demands to his acquiescence, Pharaoh still had not, and still would not simply admit to G-d. G-d was still not a reality to Pharaoh. G-d was a persistent annoyance, which Pharaoh imagined he could outmaneuver and outlast. The punishment for Pharaoh’s obstinacy, for his flat out refusal to own up to HaShem’s reality, was the forfeiting of the G-d given gift of his own free will. His heart was now G-d’s alone. And if Pharaoh wouldn’t agree to G-d’s will, then G-d would agree whole-heartedly to Pharaoh’s obsessive will, and harden Pharaoh’s heart for him.

We all know Pharaoh’s fate. He went down and took his nation with him. He was the most powerful man on earth. Today he is nothing more than a poster boy for the folly of denying G-d’s will, for denying G-d’s existence. For thousands of years man has been studying Pharaoh’s folly and celebrating his downfall. Yet, in every generation there rises a Pharaoh, or two, or three, who still think they can outfox G-d, who still think that they run the world and that they can do with it whatever pleases them. And some, for a short while, succeed in fooling themselves, only to find their ill-gotten legacy dead in its crib, and their imagined greatness drowned in the sea.

Free will is a right, a privilege and a responsibility rooted in recognition of the G-d who created us and granted us this remarkable gift. It is an inalienable right, until we alienate ourselves from G-d. It is our relationship with HaShem, our recognition of His reality, which makes us human. When we deny that He is present, we may imagine ourselves to be gods, but we become nothing more than dumb beasts. Pharaoh, for all his majesty, for all his palaces and riches and pyramids and power, was the most foolish and pitiable among man. To this day, mention frogs, lice, boils and pestilence and the word that pops into people’s mind is “Pharaoh!” Sad for Pharaoh, but very good for mankind. G-d’s plan worked!